If you’re considering a new plan, you might want a new phone as well. Have your eye on that top-of-the-line Apple or Samsung model? In the past, getting a new phone meant locking yourself into a two-year contract that had multiple financial disadvantages for consumers. But those offers are now long gone. Now you can lease a new phone like a car, pay it off in interest-free installments, or buy it outright and enjoy a lower monthly bill.
And here’s another change: Remember unlimited data plans? They disappeared for a couple of years but then started being offered again by the major carriers. You may not need that much data—and many people sign up for more expensive plans than they need. But if you stream a lot of music or movies over your cellular network, an unlimited plan may be a smart move.
Top 10 Cell Phone Companies
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Provider: The First Choice You’ll Make
Go Big or Go Small
Generally speaking, prepaid service from the smaller carriers such as Consumer Cellular, Republic Wireless, and Ting benefits people with modest data needs (web browsing, email, Facebook) and little lust for the hot phone of the moment. Heavy data users, especially those who want three or more phone lines, will most likely be happier with one of the Big Four carriers (AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon Wireless).
Confirm the Coverage
Large carriers such as AT&T and Verizon have a distinct advantage. They have the country well-covered with high-speed 4G internet service. Use the providers’ ZIP code maps and other resources to confirm basic coverage. But these references don’t take into account small dead zones in your neighborhood or home. (You might want to ask friends in the area how well their phones work in those spots.)
You should also make sure you can cancel service and return the phone if a coverage problem crops up. For some carriers, including Sprint and Verizon, the grace period is a brief 14 days. They’ll charge you a $35 restocking fee as well.
Count Your Phone Lines
That’s easy: you plus spouse plus dependents.
Do the Math
For smartphone users, the biggest charge is usually related to data use. See the chart below to estimate how much data you’ll need on a monthly basis.
The Lowdown on Data
How much data you’ll burn through each month depends on your WiFi access (and how often you’re away from it), how much you regularly stream or download, and whether you’re a gamer.
Light Data Use (1GB per Phone)
You spend more time calling and texting than checking e-mail and using apps such as Facebook and Twitter. When streaming content such as movies or YouTube videos, you do it almost exclusively on WiFi.
Medium Data Use (2GB per Phone)
You are less reliant on WiFi and engage in a little bit of everything—streaming some movies and TV shows. Additionally, one of you does limited live gaming.
Heavy Data Use (4GB or More per Phone)
You are also less reliant on WiFi, and additionally, everyone in your household loves to download movies and TV shows, plus watch YouTube videos—and two of your kids are heavy live gamers.
Do You Need a New Phone?
Take a clear-eyed look at whether your phone is past its prime. Here are three cases when it might be wise to replace it:
Your Current Phone Is Giving You Trouble
You can replace a cracked display or an anemic battery (by yourself on many Android phones), but when system improvements from Apple or Google reduce the performance of your phone, it’s probably time to replace it. Ditto sluggish response times, frequent crashes, and a battery that gives out before the end of the day.
You’re Moving to Another Provider
In the past, switching carriers meant you were definitely getting a new phone. Providers locked the phones they sold into their services. Once you met the terms of your agreement, you might persuade the company to set yours free, but chances are the device lacked the technology to function properly on a rival network. That’s no longer true for all phones: Apple, for instance, sells unlocked phones with the technology to operate in multiple networks.
You Can’t Resist a New Gadget
These days, annual improvements in handset technology are less significant than they were a few years ago, so there’s less incentive to upgrade. For instance, the iPhone 6s is still recommended by Consumer Reports, even though it was introduced back in 2015 (and if you want a conventional headphone jack, you might be happier sticking with the older model). Ditto for the new Samsung Galaxy S8 and S8+